Concertos for the Forest:
Walter Tilgner's European Sound Images
By Hans Ulrich Werner
We listen to an old lacquer shellac recording from 1936. Through
clicking and crackling we hear birdsongs and environmental sound.
Is this just a nostalgic sound memory, an idyllic place? No, the
early document reveals a diversity of bird voices, an interplay
between the habitat's daily rhythm and a rich listening space.
These were signs of an intact environment. In the annual reports
regarding the status of the forest today, the sound is not mentioned,
but for Walter Tilgner they a mirror and an audible fingerprint
of change. Cultural noise, he observes, masks and endangers the
species and their rhythm, "The bird concert has become less
rich in the last years," he says, "and what I have recorded
10 or 15 years ago, I can not replicate today."
Walter Tilgner is a bioacoustician, one of Middle Europe's best
forest photographers and sound recordists well known for
his binaural "Sound Head" Recordings. He used digital
recording technology very early in the 80's and published his
first Waldkonzert (Forest Concerto) on the Wergo label in 1985.
Tilgner was born in Mähren and came to Germany after the
war. He studied Biology in Frankfurt while pursuing an internship
at the Forstamt der Stadt Frankfurt. Since then he has recorded
natural worlds with camera and microphone and worked until his
retirement in 1998 with the Bodensee Natur Museum in Konstanz.
Recently, Walter Tilgner produced his tenth compact disc, featuring
the "King of the Forest," the sounds of red deer (the
family known as elk in North America), again with Wergo in Mainz.
"Waldkonzert is like a composition, because I edit an idealized
state of the forest, which is not existing outside. Out of many
scenes I select and compose an interesting process along the change
of seasons. With binaural Sound Head recording, I get a strong
feeling of space. You hear and feel how far away a bird is, whether
it is singing above or below me. Selecting and editing, that is
all I do, there is no additional manipulation and mixing. Through
the recordings, I bring the birds into my and other peoples' homes
and when I close my eyes I believe to be in the forest. That is
my aim. I want to dream, to evoke memories, to believe I am there,
outside under the trees."
Tilgner's productions aim beyond the classification of single
sounds and animal voices, as he integrates them into the overall
soundscape. His recordings simulate a holistic picture of the
ecosystem of the forest, as an ensemble. For a moment, while recording,
he becomes a part of the acoustic environment: through intensive
listening and reflection. Especially in the early morning situations,
he is a silent, stealthy observer and listening artist: part of
nature and sound. Many thoughts touch him in this nearly meditative
phase of a day. In that moment, he is a part and apart from nature
through his ability to reflect on a structural and meta-level
about what he hears. Sound artists, like Walter Tilgner (or many
of the other friendly competitors), frame the acoustic picture
for a moment and in that moment of creation reveal in their art.
Beyond this moment there is skill and editing.
Like a film director, Tilgner knows many different locations:
places, forests, transitions, shores and beaches, mountain meadows
and wetlands. His binaural recordings appear to be documentation
but, through selection of time and space, they are an orchestration
with and in the landscape, a tuning into the environmental space.
The Sound Head integrates small granular movements of the listening
experience. When birdsong reduces during a day-and-night-cycle,
the whispering of the trees gets into the foreground of perception.
In a soundscape, figure and ground relations are always in flux.
This is especially apparent in his CD, Waldesrauschen (Whispering
Forest). . . more energy wave than bioacoustic theatre and drama.
In other recordings, Tilgner emphasizes the songlines of special
birds, like the calls of cranes on the island of Rügen in
the Baltic sea. There, he listened to one of the most impressive
natural theatres in middle Europe. The collective choir of cranes
melts into the drone of the sea and solo voices of other sea birds.
Since the analogue recordings of the 70's, he has built up a woodpecker
library and has distinguished different acoustic patterns within
families and groups. In recent years, he has often featured the
nightingale and the blue bird, because of the variety of songs,
contexts, and variations in their voices. The nightingale is mythical
bird, one that has accompanied European culture for centuries:
in fairytales, paintings and poems, in Beethoven's Pastorale and
Stravinsky's Song of the Nightingale. The nightingale's song and
sound are a moving polystylistical improvisation, a never ending
story of rhapsodic patterns. The bird is a virtuoso in expression,
arranging song according to social habits and habitat: advertising
for a mate, territorial encounter and nesting, varying according
to seasonal and daily rhythms. Tilgner's song of the nightingale
is embedded in the dawn chorus. The acoustic life at the shore
of Bodensee is audible: wind, water, distant bells and an early
departing fisherman with a motorized boat.
Tilgner seeks holistic acoustic situations, touching on the romantic
notion of the unity with nature. He emphasizes a documentation
of nature, as authentic as possible, with a high resolution in
recording and binaural simulation. His technological background
is substantial and his work a sequence of slowly evolving sound
reliefs. His way of recording produces impressive audio pictures,
with breadth and depth, even on a modest sound system. Such sound
could be misunderstood in the dead end of 'Brave New Sonic World".
In this case, sound ecology would the muse-like, naive, idyllic
niche of an acoustic picture book.
Tilgner's binaural recordings from German forests and European
wetlands are sound images and sound compositions that document,
entertain and relax at the same time. They warn of the loss of
the audible quality of environmental topography. The idyllic niche
he lays out, or simulates, recalls a counterworld. The sound of
the forest is, for Walter Tilgner, an indicator of its biological
atmosphere and condition, its health as it were, which today is
threatened with extinction through the enormous growth of social
and cultural noise. Through such implications, Tilgner's recordings
are provocative ecological messages: acoustic backgrounds, academic
material and musical compositions.
Tilgner's audio pictures reveal a vivid and expressive world;
he is a contemporary Papageno, the media bird catcher of today.
While Papageno still made good business, the sound of the forest
is rarely a major breakthrough, as Walter Tilgner and his compatriots
have yet to be acknowledged by appreciation of the musical or
compositional aspects of their work. To the public, as well as
the musical regulators, such work is by definition merely documentary.
German music copyright law has not yet acknowledged wildlife recordings
as "musical" creations, although the recordings of natural
environments are commercially viable, selling millions of copies.
Natural sound product assumes many forms: from animal voices with
synthesizer, Satie's piano patterns with loons, a one hour real-time
soundscape from Cape Cod, an African waterhole through the course
of a day, soundscapes from the Antarctic, forest sounds with composed
orchestral music around the rhythms of nature. There are as many
names for recordings... Solitudes, Natural Sound, Earth Sound,
Living Music, Universal music. There are soundscapes and acoustic
images for relaxation, contemplation, acoustical wallpaper (instead
of Musak), sound for education and media, in new age, esoteric
and techno contexts. Meanwhile, Walter Tilgner is part of the
rave scene as well. Although, you can't find more different worlds
and appearance than Tilgner in his ranger clothes and a youngster
with a skateboard, backward baseball cap and baggy pants! The
magazine, Süddeutsche Zeitung, quotes Rene who, after daylong
raves, chills out with bird songs from Walter Tilgner, "Well,"
says Rene, "I have not been in the forest for a long time
and I am not really interested. But with CD, through headphones,
I can become addicted." This new sound culture is an ambivalent
world: nature sounds are served like delicacies on a platter;
endangered and vanishing species, as decoration and audio lifestyle
background. On the other hand, recorded sounds of the environment
underlie a growing trend of commercial use of a former free good
- sound and silence, which now, as water and air, are rapidly
becoming valuable commododies, fit for marketing.
Tilgner emphasizes a more experiential approach to recording,
one that might lead people into the familiar forests of their
own neighborhoods-- with a different notion of listening. He does
not travel to exotic remote areas. His recordings relate to regions
like the Bodensee Area the Lake Michigan of Germany
where he lives, or to the wetlands in Austria, where his family
came from. Different from other soundscape composers, who transform
the sounds of forest into electronic language, Tilgner's recordings
of nature indicate, through exclusion and pseudo-natural painting,
the "social genesis of nature." Aircraft noise over
a forest area is part of his truth of sound. This relation of
signal to noise ratio is not so much a technical consideration.
It hints at a society for whom nature is not only to buy, but
People of today benefit from that media "nature," because
it allows them to separate their personal spaces from cultural
noise in a complicated world. The natural rhythms and cycles become
interesting challenges for acoustic design in the city. And vice
versa: natural recordings point to nature and rural spaces that
are very strongly deformed by noise and social structures. So
in that sense, natural sound has already subtle tracks of culture
in it, and at the same time, somehow, changes our perception of
that culture and its relation to nature. So, Natural Sound recordings
are a contradiction and a paradox, hopefully challenging ones.
The critical review of noisy landscape should not be the end complaint
of loss of silence, but the beginning of an "Awareness to
action." Walter Tilgner states, "I don't document situations
for a museum and say, 'this is not here any longer.' It is just
the opposite for me: they should sensitize for the rest to what
we still have. I think even the best recordings cannot substitute
the event and life experience outside, it is just a digital copy.
But the more you know and feel about nature, the more intensive
our experience and relation there."
Tilgner's recordings are comparable to and distinctive from traditional
scientific recording of individual species, as well from the stylized
library of sound for media. Even when presenting a single bird
and song, he includes the background, the context, the acoustic
network of voices around the one preferred source of sound and
listening. He narrates and describes a sometimes mundane, sometimes
spectacular situation. He documents a flow, a stream of audio
consciousness in time and space and at the same time a very precise,
yet simulated environmental picture. These have value for other
purposes like landscape planning or noise abatement documentation.
They are valid for more than contemplative listening and bioacoustical
discourse. As regards the latter, Tilgner's recordings are not
generally included within the European scientific community's
fold of research. Perhaps the focus on the monadic signal, the
single motive and pattern, is still closer to the 19th century
idea of morphology and analytical approach. The parabolic microphone,
a useful tool, is an icon for the researcher's concentration on
the singular event of content framed accordingly. Even animal
sound in wildlife television documentaries, a very successful
genre, reflects this in a popular way. Walter Tilgner's sound,
in most given moments, is a holistic and sometimes chaotic surround
field a 360-degree world with noise and sound, song
and life, from primal sounds of the creator "Urtöne
der Schöpfung" to very complex neighborhoods
of the morning bird concerto.
Tilgner goes on to say, "Nature's song is a message, a signal
from animal to animal and has deep meaning for their coexistence.
For us humans, the soundscape of an old German forest has a peaceful
and calming effect for the birds, the other animals and
the trees it is very different. It has two sides: the living together
of many particular species, plants and animals, and humans, even
those not audible in the center of the sound picture itself, and
the complementary presence of competition, a fight for space,
light, water and nutrition. This battle is even more intensive
when the individual creatures touch each other's space, when their
conditions of living are similar. On the other hand, trees grant
each other and many animals shadow, structure and a complementary
position. Only in its entity can a collective forest counterpart
the storms and only within the complex network of trees is a fruitful
green, favorable climate is available. Both competition and symbiosis
are audible within the sound, which is as rich and diversified
as the biological community."
As said before, Tilgner's audio pictures reveal a vivid and expressive
world. The silence of nature (of life in general) seems to be
an illusion; silence and contemplation is more a romantic projection
than anything else, very much man made. Tilgner's notion of silence
is provoked by sound, but ends up being found in internal experiences:
sonic meditation. Intensive listening for a long time, recording
without motion, and acoustic awareness are only possible when
the recordist stays still. Be it the forest, for a man like Tilgner,
or the urban flaneur in big cities, everything and everybody "moves
to the beat." Only the listener holds a position of meditative
luxury of non-action and pure perception. When the recipient later
listens to the recordings in his own world and context, he creates
new associations and functions with it, maybe as acoustic wallpaper,
or as the sound retrieves deep memories and notions in the time
travel that is a form of personal sound biography.
Between documentation for science and the mimetic gesture of programmatic
music and musique concrete, we might need a third ear for a virtual
space of Tilgner's recordings. In that sense, it is important
whether we hear the song of the blue bird on a lacquer disc, on
a CD, or outside in nature. This may motivate the director of
a broadcast archive to integrate many of Walter Tilgner's voices
into his library. Perhaps as background for all manner of radiophonic
applications, as raw material for a planned concerto for Rotbauchunke
and Tüpfelralle, as material of special interest programs
in cultural radio and, who knows, as a document for the world
to come, or as symbol of the lost acoustic horizon.